JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Department of Transportation is losing roughly 60 employees a month, and most of them who leave say it’s because of pay.
Missouri has some of the lowest-paid state workers in the country. Back in January, employees received a 2% raise, then a few months later, the General Assembly approved a 5.5% cost of living adjustment. The head of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) said it’s still not enough.
“What we know from the people who are leaving, 75% of everybody that has walked out the door from MoDOT in the last five years has left because of compensation,” said Patrick McKenna, MoDOT director.
With construction season coming to an end and winter weather on the horizon, the state’s transportation department is bracing for the worst.
“Last year was a big challenge and this year the challenge has gotten worse,” McKenna said.
McKenna said MoDOT was roughly 600 operators short during the winter months in 2021. This year, the department has nearly 900 open positions.
“These aren’t people leaving for 25 cents an hour more, these are 20, 30 and 40% increases doing the same work,” he said. “This is expertise that is in demand, and so being far off market is a really troubling trend.”
Internal turnover at MoDOT about eight years ago was 10%, McKenna said. Then, within the last four to five years, the turnover rate was about 15%. During the pandemic, the department’s turnover reached an all-time high of 20%.
“This year to date and last year combined, we had 1,526 workers leave, and we’ve been trying to replace them, but we have not been able to at the rate they are leaving,” McKenna said.
It’s not just snowplow drivers or those working in the office.
“We’re running over 500 active construction projects concurrently at any given time, and we need construction inspectors, I have less than one per project,” McKenna said. “It’s not just season workers coming in, it’s actually our core staff.”
MoDOT currently has three of its largest construction projects ever underway across the state, the I-270 project in the St. Louis area, the Buck O’Neil Bridge in Kansas City, and the Rocheport Bridge along I-70 just west of Columbia.
McKenna said the biggest problem is pay. Some employees have to work multiple jobs to put food on the table. The first piece of legislation the governor signed this year was a $4.5 billion emergency budget that included a 5.5% cost of living adjustment to all 50,000 state employees.
The state budget director previously told lawmakers across all state departments, the turnover rate is 26%, when the industry standard is 10%.
While the raise from lawmakers and the governor did help, Mckenna said more needs to be done.
“We were running at the beginning of this calendar year, 85 to 90 people a month were leaving employment at MoDOT,” McKenna said. “That is crisis time. We have seen that come down to about 60 a month. That’s significant, but where we need it to be is about 30.”
To compensate, MoDOT may ask workers to move around the state this year to help clear roadways. McKenna said with the decades-long decline in seasonal workers, MoDOT wants drivers to be patient this winter.
“Our biggest challenge this year is going to be the I-70 corridor, statewide,” McKenna said. We’ve already had to close some of our busiest maintenance facilities in Kansas City. We literally only had 20% of the staff available.”
He said MoDOT’s first priority during winter weather will be primary roads like interstates and major highways. The lettered routes could take longer to get to than normal due to staffing constraints.
“We’re probably not going to be treating or plowing those roads until after the precipitation stops unless conditions change, and we can get there,” McKenna said.
Inflation is also taking a toll on MoDOT’s budget. McKenna said this year to date, the department’s construction program is 34% over budget, more than $170 million. These additional expenses will cut into next year’s budget.
“The construction industry is not immune to the labor issues and what we are seeing right now, current bids are much higher than we were anticipating,” McKenna said. “Money that we thought was going to be available next year is not going to be.”
In 2021, McKenna said the department ended up 11% over budget, about $139 million, due to increased prices towards the end of the year.
MoDOT is offering a starting wage between $17.55 and $18.25 per hour, depending on experience and area of operation. The positions are also eligible for $3 to $6 per hour boosts in pay when working winter/emergency operations activities.
Full-time employees receive full training and a long list of other benefits including retirement, paid leave, medical, vision, and dental insurance. Applicants need to be at least 18 years old and successfully complete a criminal background check (a misdemeanor or felony conviction is not an automatic restriction to employment).